Sunday, December 22, 2013

Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed Magpie
Roseville, California, USA
Member of the Crows and Jays Family
§A Mischief of Magpies§

~true bird fact~ From the Crows-and-jays-are-really-smart-you-guys file: When a Yellow-billed Magpie dies, he receives a funeral. No, really, this is true (source). Nearby birds appear to experience grief. They swoop down to the body and hop around it making long squawking cries, and this goes on for quite some time.

How endangered are they? The Nature Conservancy has declared the Yellow-billed Magpie 'vulnerable', mainly because he has such a narrow range. This guy only lives in California's Central Valley, and, as such is especially susceptible to threats from any number of natural or human disasters. Populations are in decline since the outbreak of the West Nile Virus. It is estimated that literally half of all Yellow-billed Magpies died from the virus between 2004 and 2006.

Has not talked to his brother in years, but still cares about him deeply
Trusting to a fault
Is an active and well-known member of his local community
Not afraid to experience emotions deeply

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Burrowing Owl, Bird of the Year 2013: Portrait of a Champion

Burrowing Owl
Berkeley, California, USA
Member of the True Owl Family
§A Parliament of Owls§

The Burrowing Owl occupies an interesting evolutionary niche that both endangers it and assists in its long-term survival. They live in open grassy fields, which are generally perfect places to build stuff. Hence, the Burrowing Owl is endangered in Canada, Threatened in Mexico, and a species of special concern in Florida and most of the west, including my own California.

However, he finds sanctuary in some unusual places. Golf courses and airports, both of which people build in abundance, have been known to attract these guys in significant numbers due to their similarity with the owl's natural habitat. Furthermore, they're doing just fine in Central and South America, where the clear-cutting of the rain forest is actually increasing the size of their habitat.

Unlike most owls, this guy is active all day and all night. He catches ground based prey by running after it with his long legs, or swooping down from low perches. He basically eats everything, and even lures insects to his burrow (which, sometimes are dug by other animals, but that he can dig himself) using animal droppings.

With this intriguing background, is it any wonder that Burrowing Owl is 2013's Bird of the Year, as named by California's Audubon Society? No, it is not any wonder. Your Amateurnithologist was granted a rare interview session with Burrowing Owl following his victory, and found out that he's much more than a pretty face. Burrowing Owl has a sharp, brooding intelligence to him that you wouldn't expect. And you can't argue with success.

Burrowing Owl states that his motivation is not just to entertain and delight. Owling is art, he feels, and he hopes that people really think about his work. He hopes to take on more challenging, independent projects in the future.

Burrowing Owl had strong words for 'haters' that your blogger will not repeat here. He also doesn't like when people call him 'cute', 'fluffy wuffy', or 'a little cutie'. Burrowing Owl feels that his success is earned, frequently pointing out that he "started from the bottom." He expressed love and appreciation for his fans. "I couldn't have done it without you, you're the reason I do what I do when I do what I do" he stated. 

Burrowing Owl, congratulations! You are Bird of the Year 2013.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Totally Different Birds: Greater Yellowlegs vs. Willet

Greater Yellowlegs
Berkeley, California, USA
Member of the Sandpiper Family

~true bird fact~ Greater Yellowlegs are notoriously understudied by scientists because they generally live in such inhospitable, mosquito-ridden, and generally unpleasant-to-hang-out-in places. Yup, that's all it takes.

Idiosyncratic taste in music and movies (likes things that are really trash)
Says "woop! woop!" over and over again. No one knows why.
Has his own ideas about morality, which may be confusing to some, but are at least internally consistent
Lives this way because he wants to, not because he must

Berkeley, California, USA
Member of the Sandpiper Family
Is into scrapbooking now

You remember Willet, don't you? Our very own third bird portraiture subject. My how far we've come, in terms of photography at least. Anyway, your Amateurnithologist was taking a walk at the Berkeley Marina and took what he believed was a nice picture of our friend Willet. Cause you can't have too many pictures of birds, right?

On a whim, I decided to check if there were any other birds that looked like a Willet, and found out about Sir Yellowlegs up there. Care to take a guess about the only visible difference between a Willet and a Greater Yellowlegs? I am left to what has become my mantra of bird identification lately- "always get good light on the feet." So there I was with a new bird to feature on the blog, but I felt like I would be remiss to not tell this story and to point out the at-times ridiculously minor differences that separate one bird from another. I mean really, it's like one of those 'can you spot 5 differences?' puzzles for children. This is what I see as one of the major barriers to entry into the hobby and we here at your bird blog want to do our best to normalize your birding experiences. At amateurnithologist "we're dumb too" is our motto.

Any pair of birds that make me say "C'mon! That is SO not a different bird!" will get featured in this way. Thanks for tuning in birdfans and til' next week- may all your birds be noticeably different looking.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Common Ostrich

African Ostrich
Ostrichland USA, Solvang, California, USA
Member of the Ostrich Family
§A Pride of Ostriches§

~true bird fact~ Ostriches cannot fly. Okay fine, I'll give you more than that. Because they cannot fly, ostrich wings have lost many of the properties of 'normal' bird wings. Specifically, they are no longer formed into the familiar blade-like shape that flighted birds have because the feathers filaments don't have a hook anymore. Unlike other bird feathers, ostrich feathers feel soft and fluffy, and are used exclusively for insulation. Well, used by the ostriches exclusively for that. Humans use them for feather dusters.

Male (left)
A little bit of a neat freak
Pouts silently when he doesn't get his way
An armchair intellectual
Talented cook

Female (right)
loses things all the time
Very into exercising
Excessive hashtag user (ie. #FitOstriches #EatMyDust #NotSorryHaters)
Sometimes doesn't pay attention to conversations she's having

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bird Couples: American Kestrel

American Kestrel aka. Sparrow Hawk aka. Grasshopper Hawk aka. Killy Hawk (regional)
Oakland, California, USA
Member of the Falcon Family
 §A Flight of Kestrels§

~true bird fact~ Kestrels are migratory birds, but males and female migrate at separate times. Females go south first and stake out prime open grassland territory. When the males follow they are left to hunt in wooded areas which are (presumably) more difficult.

A serious and successful falcon
Makes up for her draining work time with an ample social circle
People wonder 'how she does it'
No one gets in her way, if they know what's good for them
Stoic and silent, but has a kind presence
A younger man
Values his partner's independence and unthreatened by her success
Their relationship may lack official status, but it is undoubtedly a serious and loving one.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Violet-green Swallow // William Swainson

Violet-green Swallow
Park City, Utah, USA
Member of the Swallow Family
§A Sord of Swallows§

~true bird fact~ Violet-green swallows have been known to babysit for bluebirds. They protected and fed the chicks in the absence of their parents until they fledged (were able to leave the nest). It takes a village!

On another note- because of the unfortunate angle your bird photographer had to take this photo from, you can't really see this guy's namesake plumage, which is really very striking. I vow to one day get a better photo of this bird, but if you can't wait til then, google him, he's super cool looking.

Listens to the radio
Loves to tell you what you're doing wrong with your kids. A real busybody
Has a stilted and awkward way of interacting with others
Maybe belongs to one of those weird religious group
First described in 1827 by William John Swainson.
File:Swainson William 1789-1855.jpg 
Swainson was a character. He is, in his wikipedia article (the measure by which all men are judged) described at different points as 'influential', 'reckless', 'famous', 'eccentric', 'talented', and 'ignorant as a goose'. He once became involved in a land dispute with a Māori chief in New Zealand. It is fair to say Swainson was on the wrong side of history several times. But let's not just jump right to his failings.

Active through the early and middle 1800's, Swainson began his career, as so many naturalists, in the military. A major explorer of Brazil who focused mainly on birds and fish, Swainson has quite a lot of namesakes. He has his own thrush, hawk, warbler, sparrow, francolin (?), flycatcher, and even a toucan. He mainly achieved fame as an early adopter of lithography. In fact, he was the first naturalist to do so. It was an easy way to mass produce prints without the use of an engraver. Monochrome lithographs would arrive with a sort of paint-by-numbers created by Swainson. He was apparently an illustrator of great achievement.

Swainson took a turn for the odd when he began supporting a new system of biological classification called Quinarianism, which posited, for seemingly no reason, that all taxa could be divided into fives. If an animal did not have five variations in its family, that meant that there were undiscovered species. It only got more complicated from there and the images of this system have a kind of bizarre Kabalistic look to them.
Late in life he took an ill-advised position as a botanical surveyor in Sydney, Australia (he moved to Oceania when he was basically laughed out of Britain for his Rule of Five nonsense). He knew basically nothing about Botany, unfortunately, and released an absurd report that listed, among other oddities, over 1500 species of Eucalyptus Trees (ur author notes that this is way more than 5). He died a few years later. William Swainson may be dead, but he continues to delight with his lasting images of birds and tales of his ridiculous misadventures.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker
Roseville, California, USA
Member of the Woodpecker Family
§A Menorah of Flickers§ (?!)

~true woodpecker fact~ like many woodpeckers, these guys like to drum on objects. They find the loudest things they can and just go to town. You can often hear a woodpecker from a half a mile away if they've found something made of metal. They do this to mark their territory and communicate with each other.

~true northern flicker fact~ These come in two colors- yellow in the eastern US and red in the west. Check out those fancy tail feathers! They are the only woodpecker who mostly forages on the ground. Wow, you look that cool and that's your most interesting thing? Sheesh.

Boisterous and quick to speak up
Excellent social skills, never shows up to a party without a bottle of wine. An expert host and event planner
Likes to give advice to his friends. Sometimes to strangers
His favorite holiday is Easter

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bird of the Year 2013: Meet the Candidates

Hello birdpersons! I had planned a super boring entry about a Northern Flicker, but then I got the news. Audubon California has announced the candidates for Bird of the Year 2013! Obviously I had to stop everything I was doing and write up a voters guide. For birds we've covered before, we'll catch up on their latest accomplishments. New birds will receive a brief, but informative overview. An informed voting public is a societal good!

Black-necked Stilt
On fire since being declared sexiest bird of the year 2012. Has successfully branched out into more sectors than anyone really expected. Resting on his laurels right now, to be honest, but in the eyes of the public this bird can do no wrong.
Chances of winning: GOOD.

Brown Pelican
What did brown pelican do to get his name on the ballot? You don't wanna know. But he's there, and he's made all the right moves this year to position himself for a win. Why does he care? A bid for power? A move towards legitimacy? Simple egotism? No one knows, but he's been racking up endorsements from the business community, and detractors are suspiciously (ominously) silent.

Burrowing Owl
Archival Image from Ca. Audubon: Peter LaTourrette
The traditional gesture nomination provided to someone both cute and deserving of recognition, like when a child actor is in an actually good movie. Unlikely to be awarded the title unless the public is in a strange mood. Burrowing Owl himself is pretty 'over' his fifteen minutes and right now is attempting to drive away interest with rude public behavior. Unfortunately this is leading to more attention, and not the positive kind he's used to. Will burrowing owl make it through this rough spot?
Chances of Winning: PROBABLY NOT

Golden Eagle
 Archival Image from Ca. Audubon: SigmaEye (??)
Your Amateurnithologist saw a golden eagle once in the wild. He was hiking in the desert and one took off from the ground just a few dozen feet from him. Honestly, the experience was too awing for him to even try with the camera. He seemed aloof and perfect, like some kind of bird god-king. A mighty and remote competitor, golden eagle is pretty much ignoring that the contest exists, but is still commanding respect from all commentators.
Chances of Winning: HOW COULD HE NOT?

Loggerhead Shrike

Archival Image from Ca. Audubon: Patricia R. Pierce
Loggerhead shrike's positioning in this contest is mostly that of a spoiler for the more serious competitors. He's a third party candidate, in essence. He appeals to bird purists with his straightforward approach and no-drama attitude. He seems to say: I am a bird, I have wings, I have a tail, I have a beak. What more could you want?
Chances of Winning: VERY LOW

Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo

 Archival Image from Ca. Audubon: Laura Frazier
When's the last time western yellow-billed cuckoo did anything worth mentioning? Truly a nomination out of left field for the struggling bird. Perhaps a bone throw from the academy so that people will say 'hey, remember western yellow-billed cuckoo'. Retains his charms in a technical way, but to those who know him well, it is like seeing a ghost.
Chances of Winning: ACTUALLY ZERO

I hope this guide prepares you for election day and the celebratory gala afterwards. This amateurnithologist knows he will be there with bells on, live blogging the ceremony. Best of luck to all the competitors.